The Writer's Survival Guide: Chapter 5: The Education of a Writer

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We know we want to write. That much is clear. But we recognize that writing is a skill, and, as with all other skills — medicine, piano, baseball, bartending — a certain degree of learning will be necessary. We know what to do to learn those skills. If we want to be a doctor, we take a pre-med curriculum in undergraduate years, study for the MCAT's, go to medical school, do our residency, etc. If we want to play piano, we study with a music teacher and practice our fingers off. Baseball we learn from playing on a team; bartending we learn in a class, or on the job.

But writing is learned in a myriad of ways. There is no single path that you can walk down which will, on the other end, deposit you conclusively into the glistening Shangri-la of A Successful Career As A Writer. Plus, what works for others may not work for you. Indeed, the path to becoming a good writer is no more clear or universal than the path to becoming a good person. We get to each place through trial and error, through staying the course yet digressing down crooked trails, through keeping our eyes open while keeping our guts willing, through not just trying, but trying intelligently.

So, since there is no one way to reach the goal of learning to write, how can you ascertain how best to spend your energies? My students often debate this, declaring at various moments of epiphany that — Eureka! They now know what is most vital in learning how to write: "Reading," some assert, thumping their fingers on their Dickens; "Attending classes," profess others, brandishing college catalogs like pennant banners; "Finding mentors," argue a few, throwing roses to a published author; "Listening to others," adds a handful, scribbling down what everyone else is saying; "Seeing yourself as a writer," proclaims the silent majority, flipping on their computers.

The truth is that, when learning how to become a writer, all the above are important. You just need to consider the ins and outs of each, and to make sure you achieve a balance.

In this chapter, I discuss these ways of educating oneself as a writer. The only major activity I won't discuss is the writing itself. The next three chapters will address that in detail.

Who and How To Read

Writers read. They must. Reading provides writers with models of possibility — how to introduce the headmaster in a suspicious way, how to skip suspensefully from the corpse in the garden to the nursemaid rocking her charges, how to walk the reader inside a West Virginia coal mine in such a way that soot seems to line the pages. Reading also provides writers with models of failure: this opening paragraph should be filed under "Sominex," this parlor is so minutely described that we care more about the bric-a-bracs than about our heroine inviting her date to join her on the divan, this bank president's dialogue reads exactly the same as that of the auto mechanic and the pigtailed tomboy. Reading is the best way apprentice writers have to teach themselves, and advanced writers have to continue their education.

It is important that you become familiar with both contemporary books and the classics. The former are vital because they are written by your peers in your own time, and because by looking at them you can absorb the range of styles, subject matter, and technical tricks that writers are currently exploring. This way, you can create a mental map of the present literary landscape, and hence discover where both the over-explored and under-explored territories are located. The classics are important because they are written by your forebears, and thus from studying them you can see not only style, subject matter, and technical tricks, but also how writers' thought process and audiences' expectations have changed over time.

Aside from these reasons, writers can benefit from reading both contemporary and classic authors by using them as examples of standards. That is, each story or book is an opportunity for you to ask yourself, What do I think works? What do I think doesn't? What are my standards, and do I have this author's talent/gumption to try to reach them?

I do not want to make a specific reading list here, since all writers are unique and consequently the precise books that would prove useful are unique as well. But it is not difficult to form your own list. Simply think about what you want to write — literary short stories, horror novels, epic poetry, etc. — and then explore the entire history of that form. Start with contemporary authors. You can do this by reading book reviews and speaking with like-minded readers. I also strongly suggest you spend time in a bookstore doing what librarians call "shelf reading," which means that you patiently look at the spine — and perhaps the inside of — every book on a particular shelf (in this case, the new books shelf) so you familiarize yourself with what's out there.

Then buy some books and read them. You'll often find that the inside and the outside of almost any book can provide you with breadcrumbs to lead you to your next destination. Within the text, writers frequently make references (through epigraphs, metaphors, allusions, etc.) to other writers, both contemporary and classic, who influenced them. You can also examine the blurbs — those superlative quotations on the back cover from famous living writers — and then look up books written by those famous living writers. And then there are author interviews, which you might see on TV, hear on the radio, or see in a newspaper. You can also go to the library and look in Current Biographies, Contemporary Authors, and, for the younger reader, Something About The Author. These reference books synthesize interviews from many sources, and usually include the literary genealogy that led to each writer's particular approach. Then read those books. Etcetera.

In addition to this directed pursuit of your chosen form, I urge you to read randomly, and outside what you want to write. I write literary fiction, but I have certainly profited from reading thrillers and science books and comics and Greek tragedies and magazine ads and fortune cookies. Sometimes I just go to bookstores or the library and read the first ten pages of all the new books, just to see how each writer chose to begin the work. The best ones I'll read through to the end.

What matters is that you are reading and thinking as you do. But how to do that? Here are some tips:

1. Recognize that there is no one right way to read as a writer, other than the general rule of reading closely.

2. Look behind the creation to understand the techniques of the creator. That is, be the reader who gets wowed (or fails to get wowed) by the text — and, simultaneously, or in a reread, see how and why the author is eliciting certain reactions from you.

3. Understand that reading is a two-way street when you're a writer. The closer you read, the more tricks and techniques you can learn to use as a writer. And, the more you write, the more you understand the way a writer's mind works, and so the more clearly you'll see others' tricks and techniques.

4. As you read a piece, notice your emotional reactions to and thoughts about the characters and story, and when those reactions shift in one direction or another. Perhaps you should even make notations in the margins (yes, write inside the book) which will remind you that here you laughed, here you got bored, here you felt an urgency to continue.

When you have finished the piece, step back and think about the larger, or macro, elements, such as overall story, pacing, character development, structure, consistency of voice. See if you think these were done well, given how you reacted emotionally and how they made you think. Then reread the piece, looking at the more minute, or micro, elements. These include how the voice was created, how the characters were introduced, what the metaphors refer to, how the transitions were accomplished, if the sentence variety was satisfying. When examining micro elements, you might want to break the text into smaller and smaller units — first the area between space breaks, then groups of paragraphs, then a single paragraph, then a sentence, then a clause, then a word. Study the function of everything (recognizing, of course, that the more you know about writing, the more you'll be able to see). If you look closely, you will come to understand why you thought and felt as you did during your initial reading.

5. Maintain these two important fundamental beliefs (assuming you are reading the text fairly and closely):

A. The writer was in control when he wrote this piece — everything you think and feel as you read it, you are meant to think and feel. This includes every connotation, every whatever-happened-to-that eccentric minor character question, every fleeting contemplation of the coincidence that the hero's hat is yellow and the villain hates sunlight — everything.

B. Your reaction is never wrong. In other words, trust your doubts. If, for instance, you aren't feeling truly sad when the puppy gets hit by the motorcyclist — though it's clear that you're supposed to feel sad — trust that the text is awry, not you. Then try to see why the text didn't convince you to feel sorrow. If you look closely, you'll almost always come up with a good reason.

6. As you're reading, make a list of each element you want to examine, focusing on those you are most concerned about in your own writing. You might also want to explore elements you haven't yet used yourself, because the longer you are a writer, the more techniques you will want to know.

7. Recognize that the more you do of this, the better you'll get at it. Practice makes proficiency.

8. Feel free to scrutinize not only elements you've already been aware of, but elements that you've never heard anyone talk about. I usually make up categories for things I haven't seen in a text before, and then get a whole class of elements to look at in my own work. Let's say you're studying voice, and you realize the writer found a way to convey voice that you'd never noticed before. Make up a category ("shifts in typeface," maybe, or "unusual punctuation combinations"). This will expand your own vision, because you'll see so many more possibilities.

9. Recognize that every writer you look at will differ from one piece to another. This is because every writer has different strengths, and every piece is unique.

10. Look at books and magazines not just to learn how to write, but also to investigate the possibilities of publishing. Remember that every publication was the product of an author whose work matched the critical requirements and needs of an editor. Therefore, you can look at books and magazines as guides for what editors in general want, and for what this editor in particular wants. In books, this means paying attention to the different publishing houses, and noting, for instance, that the kinds of styles and subjects published by Knopf differ from those published by Morrow, or Pocket. In magazines, this means paying attention to all aspects of the magazine — the ads, the nonfiction articles, even the photographs — so you understand the audience the publication seems to be aiming for. Not only will you then learn craft from reading, but you will become much more astute in terms of the writing business.

If you follow this basic procedure, you will quickly come to feel that every piece of printed material is a priceless teacher, and as a result that there is no area of writing that you cannot teach yourself. Your best university is on your shelves.

Writing Classes and Writing Programs

But let's say you want more guidance than books themselves will provide. You have heard about classes and graduate programs in writing, and you think they might offer you something you don't feel you can give yourself right now. What are you getting into?

Most writing classes, whether they be at the local YMCA or part of the curriculum at an Ivy League college, are taught by what is called the workshop method. This means that when a student brings a piece of writing to class, everyone in the room reads and discusses it as a group, focusing both on strengths and weaknesses, so the writer gets opinions from everyone, and perhaps even consensus.

The specific approach to the workshop varies from teacher to teacher. Some leave the students seated in rows while others have the students sit in a circle. Some ask the students to read the work in advance, maybe marking it up with a pen so the writer can receive detailed written responses. Others ask the writer to read the story aloud so class comments are more immediate. Some teachers ask students to speak one at a time, perhaps specifying (as I do with my students) that the initial comments be positive. Other teachers prefer students to critique in a free-for-all. Most teachers ask that the writer who is in the hot seat remain silent (and hence not defensive) until the end of the discussion, at which point questions, not excuses, are welcome.

Obviously, the workshop approach to teaching writing can be extremely difficult for the writer if the teacher does not provide the proper structure and tone for the class. A teacher who encourages mutual support and constructive criticism will conduct a class quite different in feeling from a teacher who sits back while the three most vocal students savage a writer and the other ten students cower self-protectively. It is no wonder, then, that one of the most important components of a successful writing class is the writing teacher.

Good writing teachers are orchestra conductor, Secretary of State, archeologist, sage, den mother, and lifeguard all rolled into one. They foster an atmosphere in which students feel safe to write, speak, and listen, yet also continuously question themselves, discover new insights, and grow. They are neither brutal nor coddling, controlling nor indifferent; good writing teachers are no more tolerant of arrogance than of laziness, and no less cognizant of passion than of fear. They have warmth as well as high standards. A sense of humor. Enthusiasm. Flexibility. And offer useful comments in every class.

Sometimes students make the assumption that, for a teacher to be good, she should have published a lot, or else published work that the student loves. This can be true, but it is a mistake to make this a requirement. My best writing teacher had published plays, which I wasn't interested in writing at the time, but his approach was so generous and productive that my former classmates and I still speak effusively about him. Conversely, one of my friends took a course from a world-famous novelist, and found him to be bombastic, erratic, irrational, and vicious — exalting her story one week with profuse promises that she would soon have her own seat in the pantheon, and then the next week, when rereading the exact same story, bellowing for thirty minutes about the deluded slackers who dumb-down his class.

You don't need a Who's Who laureate to learn. Sadists can be in print, angels can still be struggling. Books are no proof of goodness. Publications don't count as much as heart.

A good teacher can be as tricky to find as a good therapist. And, like a good therapist, only the patient — or student — can be the judge. So approach classes with your mental lights on. If you attend a few sessions of a class and feel the teacher embodies many of the qualities you don't respect in a person, then you can make an educated guess that you don't have a good teacher. If, however, you enter the class and find yourself stimulated by new understandings, inspired to keep writing, and plunging eagerly into work built on lessons learned in class, then you can safely conclude that you have struck teacherly gold.

Of course, few teachers are unconditionally rotten, and few are unconditionally spectacular. Like friends, most teachers fall somewhere between the poles, and one of your tasks as a student is to discern when your teachers are guiding you toward clarity, originality, and a sense of competence and faith, and when they are leading you closer to confusion, imitation, and a sense of ineptitude and doubt. The longer you take classes, the more easily you can make such assessments, but until then, try to use common sense, and see what feels right for you. Also, recognize that it might take quite a while to see where your teacher falls on the rotten — spectacular continuum, and that you might be well into a semester before you realize what you've gotten into. If, then, you see the teacher is closer to spectacular — good for you. (For more on this, see "Mentors" later in this chapter). If, though, you see the teacher is closer to rotten, you can still learn a lot — both by taking in the valuable instruction, and by doing anti-learning (learning the opposite of instruction that is counterproductive). You can learn from any teacher, even if you don't learn exactly what they want.

That said, how should you find these teachers? Should you take writing classes occasionally, one at a time, at the local Y or in continuing education programs? Or should you go whole-hog into studying writing and sign up for a graduate degree?

This depends on many considerations. If you have a very busy life which you cannot leave for a couple of years, and/or you are not yet sure how much of a commitment you are willing to make to writing, then individual writing classes will be better for you. You can find them in many high school and university continuing education evening programs. Call all the local schools and ask to get their catalogs. Try Y's and arts centers as well. You might also find people like me who teach out of living rooms or at a table in a coffee shop; such nonaffiliated writers can be found through advertising in bookstores and local newspapers, or by word-of-mouth. I have also been contacted by an especially resourceful student who simply read and enjoyed a work of mine in a magazine, sent me a letter in care of that publication, and asked me to teach her. When you want to learn, no door is necessarily closed to you.

Maybe, though, you have already taken some writing classes, or have already done a huge amount of writing on your own. Now you want something more substantial, comprehensive, and focused. You have heard about writing programs, and you think that you might want to attend one. How do you go about finding the right one for you?

The best approach is also the easiest. An organization called Associated Writing Programs, or AWP, publishes a book called AWP Official Guide to Writing Programs, which lists all the creative writing programs in the United States. Each of the more than three hundred programs is described in detail, with discussion of how much the student would actually write versus how much the student would be required to take other, non-writing, courses. This book is your Geiger counter to writing programs. If you read it thoroughly, you stand a chance of finding a program that is suited to you. (AWP's address is Associated Writing Programs, Tallwood House, Mail Stop 1E3, George Mason University, Fairfax, VA 22030. The number is 703-993-4301.)

But should you attend a program? After all, until sixty or so years ago, writers never studied writing in institutions; they learned by doing. What are the major reasons people give for going to a writing program, and is there any validity to those reasons?

1. You want guidance. — Most writing teachers can give you this, provided they have the experience and compassion, and are secure enough themselves not to be threatened by a student's eagerness or abilities. Almost all writing teachers offer technical guidance, with some having more breadth or depth than others. Many teachers offer emotional guidance, and with luck and some degree of assertiveness, you can find one who will.

2. You want to make contacts in publishing. — Occasionally writing programs expose students to agents and editors. The Iowa Writers Workshop is renowned for being a must-visit spot for many people in the business. Indeed, many top program (Columbia, Stanford, etc.) might attract editors and agents, even if it is just to attend some of the more prestigious readings which will inevitably be held there. However, you can't count on making these contacts at a writing program, and it should not be your sole or even top criterion for pursuing a degree.

3. You want to be in a community of writers. — You will get this in a writing program. After all, it is a collection of people who are actively writing, and, in the case of your teachers, actively publishing. But each student and teacher will view writing in his or her own way. Some students in my graduate program were there because they were committed to being authors. Others were there because they'd lost their jobs and didn't know what else to do. Some wanted to learn to write well. Some already wrote well, and just wanted two years of unobstructed time in which to get a book together. Some teachers care about language and not narrative; others narrative and not language. Some will always love your work because it is in first person, or set in Toledo. Others will hate it for the same reasons. Some eschew the market; others insist you study it.

So, yes, you will be in a community of writers, but be prepared for it to be a diverse community. You will find people who agree with your tastes, needs, and goals, and you will find people who don't.

4. You want to liberate yourself from your current career abyss and become a professional writer. — Writing programs may assist you in becoming a much better writer, and in rare instances they can lead directly to writing contracts. But bear in mind the comments in "Finding Money" in Chapter 4. Even with a degree in writing, you will have a tough time supporting yourself as a writer. This is sad but true.

5. You want to teach writing. — In most cases, you need an M.A. or M.F.A. to teach writing. (Exceptions are made for older writers who began in the days before masters programs, and people with substantial publications who have achieved a high degree of success.) Hence, writing programs can be very helpful, because they allow you to obtain one of the most fundamental elements of a successful resume.

Okay, now you know what you are likely to find in terms of your main motivations for attending a writing program. What can you expect? Here are some pros and cons.

Pros: Access to people who have been writing a lot longer than you, and so have insights and expertise that you don't. Access to writers you have long admired and wish to know more closely. Access to university libraries and scholars, who can help you supplement the knowledge you already have. Access to new writing friends whose opinions and strengths you will come to value and who might remain with you the rest of your life. Opportunities to explore the many ideas and experiences offered by a university environment. Opportunities to view the hardships and blessings of the lives of several professional writers. A few years of structured writing time, with regular deadlines, during which the marketplace is not the sole judge of quality. The social role of a student, which means more freedom than you might otherwise feel to explore unusual or iconoclastic thoughts.

Cons: If the school uses the workshop approach, and your teachers are not as strong and careful as they could be, you might come to fear writing anything that will elicit antagonistic or bitter comments from others, and consequently might write according to peer pressure rather than your inner voice. Along the same lines, you might find yourself neglecting your inner voice because you are focusing so much on external validation — class comments, teachers' smiles, final grades. Either way, you might be learning more about driving someone else's train than about jumping off their tracks and hopping on your own.

So should you go or not? If you really feel you want to be around people who are interested in writing, and are hell-bent on getting something out of it — even if that's in the form of anti-learning — then go. If you feel the cons outweigh the pros, or the lack of guarantees outweigh the definite assurances, then try to teach yourself instead. Just remember that, unlike having kids, the choice of whether or not to attend graduate school is reversible: if you hate being in school, then you can leave, and if you stop wanting to teach yourself, then you can go.

Mentors

Whether or not you attend writing classes or programs, you might find yourself in the position of revering a single writer or teacher. Or else you might want to revere a single writer or teacher. Is this a good thing? What can you get out of it?

I have always had a bit of a bias when it comes to mentors, which is that they are wonderful assets to any writer's career — as long as the writer keeps in mind that no mentor can be helpful in all areas, and that it is important to grow away from the mentor at some point. In other words, intellectual/creative parenting is enormously beneficial, but all writers must eventually cease relying on the advice of mentors and come into their own, maturing until they can mentor themselves. Otherwise, they will remain dependent, always needing approval before they can know if they have pulled off a story, always seeking advice before they can make any business decisions, and — here's the most damaging pitfall — always seeing the mentors' visions instead of seeing a vision of their own.

Listen to your mentor, enjoy your mentor, learn from your mentor. But don't forget your inner voice. It can lead you to worlds where no other writer, including your mentor, has ever dreamt of going.

That said, apprentice writers can find good mentors anywhere — in writing classes or programs, in correspondence with published authors, in the letters and diaries of deceased novelists. All that matters is that you trust your mentor enough to admit your needs — and then trust him enough to follow his counsel. Good mentors can also be collages of several people; perhaps from your teacher you get technical suggestions, from your correspondence you get publishing tips, and from the diaries of deceased novelists you get emotional support.

I mentioned earlier in this chapter that one of my students contacted me after reading a story of mine in a magazine. In fact, the purpose of Marisol's initial letter was to find a mentor. She wanted someone who could offer knowledge, experience, and wisdom, who could listen carefully to her concerns and respond constructively, and who, above all else, believed in her. I was so impressed at her cleverness at finding me and at her care in composing the letter that I called Marisol after receiving her letter. We spoke, she asked if she could hire me as a teacher, and over the months, as we got to know each other and I became even more impressed — this time by her work itself — we developed a bond that has proven helpful to us both. Marisol trusts my judgment, and learns to write better; I have faith in her abilities, and have the pleasure of watching her grow. Marisol gets inspiration and education; I get inspiration and gratification. We both know that my job will be done when she can incorporate my faith in her to such a degree that I cease being a regular need, and turn instead into an occasional treat. Together we are working toward that goal, while enjoying our relationship every step of the way.

Mentor-student relationships are about the richest ones available to apprentice writers. I had several when I was struggling. One respected teacher applauded me for taking risks; another made me see the absurdity of modeling my structures on those of other writers; and most of the rest were dead, brilliant artists whose lives and writings provided models. Each one was a connection I treasure. Now when I write I listen to my inner voice, but those earlier voices still babble at me from the sidelines, reminding me about the basics, the bottom lines, and what I have that's special.

Dealing With The Influence of Other Writers

You can learn a great deal from other writers. But your education will be incomplete if you don't learn how to sort out your own thoughts from what other writers suggest.

This can happen whether the writer is your mentor, friend, or favorite author. When we respect other writers, we take seriously what they say, and sometimes take it so seriously that it overrides anything we say. Our favorite novelist states in an interview that all writers should read science textbooks for a fundamental understanding of how the world works. We dutifully purchase a chemistry text, crack it open, and find ourselves in a torture chamber. But the novelist said to read it, so we try again. Our mind meanders to shopping, the boy with the buck teeth in eighth grade chemistry, Albert Einstein. We try to focus on the page. Fe — isn't that a Yiddish exclamation of exasperation? Na — isn't that the vernacular for "no"? We look at our arms and try to see chemical reactions on the skin. We yawn. Finally we put the book down and decide we are not an author.

Or we show a story to our closest writing friend. He tells us the ending stinks and that if we want it to work, we have do thus and so. We try to do thus and so, but it comes out stiff, false. We come up with great ideas on what we could do to the original ending so it would work, but James said to do thus and so, and we can't. So we put the story in a drawer. Since we can't do it his way — the way — we must retreat entirely.

This happens time and again with writers. It's almost a formula: young writer who is a little less confident than she could be absorbs a declaration from another writer who seems considerably more confident. Young writer is wowed; the declaration is made with such assurance that it must be true. Young writer gloms onto that declaration, forsaking her own thoughts. Hence, young writer steps that much further away from herself, her inner voice, her own developing confidence.

When I was in college, I had a lean, goateed teacher in anthropology, Mr. H., who, week after week repeated his two main rules of fieldwork. The first one was: Listen to every single thing the natives say. And the second one was: Don't believe a word of it.

That is, take it all in, but always maintain enough sense of self that you are able to be skeptical, when appropriate.

So how do you keep yourself from being swayed by others? How do you know when to listen to them, and when to yourself?

I believe that the first order of business for all writers is that they should listen to themselves. This generally means that it's important to form your opinions about your or someone else's story before you receive any input from others — before you show your story around, and before you discuss someone else's work. By holding on longer to your privacy, you give yourself time to let your thoughts settle — and to develop significant reasons for why you believe as you do. This way, when you encounter other opinions (in class, over the phone, in reviews), you can assess calmly and rationally whether you agree or disagree with them, and remind yourself that your opinions count.

What if you don't have the time to form your opinions before you hear theirs? Most likely, this will occur when you are writing with an externally imposed deadline, such as the day when you are on the hot seat in your class, or the day your manuscript needs to get to your editor. Whenever you find yourself dealing with the world before your opinions have gotten a chance to gel, remember that your thoughts are important. You might want to believe that everything a particular writer or teacher or editor says is "true," but you must remind yourself — consciously, if necessary — that you need time to come to your own conclusions. So hand the piece in on time, but keep rereading it on your own. And when others offer their opinions, remember your boundaries. Remember the opportunities you buy with continued patience. Be willing to work more. And most importantly, don't devalue yourself.

I listened to everything the goateed Mr. H. said, not realizing that he himself would prove the veracity of his own two rules of fieldwork. Mr. H., it turns out, delighted in denigrating my other anthropology teachers because their academic concerns differed from his. For months I felt uneasy sitting in his room, listening to him snicker about my professors, watching his face glow like Rasputin beneath the buzzing fluorescent lights. At first I wondered if I should adapt his disdain for my other teachers; his put-downs were delivered with such assurance that it seemed he might in fact perceive these teachers better than I, and so could detect frivolousness where I saw depth, gibberish where I saw knowledge. Gee, I wondered, quivering in my chair, maybe he was right. But finally one day my critical faculties came riding in like the cavalry over the hill; as I sat there in class, watching Mr. H.'s upper lip curl back for a new verbal catapult, I suddenly recognized that he was not "right," or able to perceive better than I. I saw that Mr. H. was merely a grouch with a need to squander his lecture time on the shredding of his colleagues. And from that moment on I listened to everything he said, but I never believed a word of it.

Just because someone has a big personality doesn't mean he is the Sultan of Truth. You can learn a lot from listening. You can learn a lot more from listening critically.

Defining Yourself As A Writer

Throughout this book, I have talked a lot about saying no. This includes giving yourself permission, setting boundaries, and assessing priorities. But none of that will hold together if you don't work at developing a mental image of yourself as a writer.

This is not something that comes because you will it to be so, but because you make it happen through action. Your self-image as a writer can take root only after you have structured your time so you can write, and then, during your writing hours, you write. That is, the blueprint is drawn up, and now you're constructing the cathedral.

The new self-image won't occur in a single day. It will require time, probably several weeks or months, before you find that you are seeing yourself differently. But then one morning you'll wake up and realize that, unlike before you started, you now truly accept the need for patience, and humility, and tenacity, and all the other big antidotes. Indeed, you have incorporated them into your being, every day a little more completely, and now have a sense of self as hard-working, hard-thinking, striving to improve, and amenable to waiting. And you will feel good about yourself, because you're doing what you want to do, and it's working.

However, when you first pass this monumental but invisible threshold from wanting to acting, other people will probably, for a while, keep defining you in the old ways. You are only the same old office secretary, or their same old brother, or just another lawyer with an interesting hobby. Not a Dickens — ha! You're just Carol or Russell, only now you're on this weird kick, like a grapefruit diet or weekend jogging. It's just a phase. You'll get back to your old self soon.

But if you have come to define yourself as a writer — and you are writing — you won't want to get back to your old self.

Others may have trouble with your persistence, and might keep treating you just as they did before you committed yourself to your writing. An author of a five-book science fiction series plays basketball with buddies who still act as if he has never published at all. An M.F.A. student has problems with her co-workers; they invite her to lunch and she must decline, explaining that she writes on her lunch hour. What have you published? they then ask. Nothing?! Well, how quaint, the girl wants to write. One of my students gets a call every day from a friend who tells her, "Hurry up or give up." Another student has a husband who refuses to read her work, as though her writing won't exist if he doesn't pay attention. People sometimes have difficulty accepting this new definition of us.

When you have defined yourself as a writer, and are living out that definition by actually writing, you'll know what to do with such behavior. You'll remember No. You'll seek support elsewhere. You'll realize that such seemingly prying questions as, "What's it about?" and "Aren't you published yet?" are meant to show interest, not nosiness, and that the speakers are probably romanticizing the writing process, unaware of the mental privacy and length of time it requires. They want to know if you are the mythological rising literary star they read about in magazines. Of course, literary stars are stars secondarily, and writers primarily. The same applies to you. With this realization, you will be able to respond politely but firmly to their questions — "I'm sorry, I don't talk about works in progress," or "Writing takes a long time; I'll tell you when I'm published." You will know to keep your focus on your writing rather than on how others wish to see you.

You don't have to give detailed answers. Let others keep thinking of you as someone who can't, or won't, or My god what's wrong with her! hasn't yet. You have your inner voice, which is more than most people ever get. With it, you can be strong, and not let yourself get batted about by anyone. Eventually — because you'll give them no choice — they'll come around, and see you as you have long since been seeing and enjoying yourself.

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